With virtual reality technology advancing at an ever-quickening pace, you'd think the ultimate focus for game creators would be graphics (now more than ever). But a UK-based team of developers has decided to shirk all of that by creating an action adventure PC game based entirely on audio.
Three Monkeys features a blind protagonist who goes on a journey to rescue the sun in a magical realm that has gone dark. With only very minimal, "screensaver" background graphics, the player instead navigates the world using binaural audio cues (sound that comes from different directions through your headphones) like environmental sounds, dialogue, music, and the prodding of a vivacious, sighted fairy named Yoska.
A sample of some of the audio in the game. The team recommends using headphones for the best effect.
Today, the team launched their Kickstarter to top up their funds with a goal of £28,000 (about $43,000) but told me they already have enough investors to ensure the game gets off the ground by the end of the year. They're hoping the extra boost will allow them to add some star power to the voice actor roster they're building, though they're not ready to name names just yet.
It's not the world's first audio game, but it's one of the more ambitious and, unlike most audio-centric games that lean towards horror, the lack of sight isn't a source of fear, it's a source of power.
"Other audio games are really cool but there's a big emphasis on the fear aspect," Kevin Satizabal, a blind musician and composer who has worked as a consultant for the game, told me.
"I like this game because it's making blindness something positive, making the player empowered by the fact that they cannot see rather than afraid."
In fact the whole game is based around the concept that as a blind individual, the protagonist has an advantage in a world gone dark. Being blind is the secret power that allows our hero to save the world.
The concept was cooked up by Stephen Willey, who worked as a composer and audio developer for video games. He initially intended to do a small demo game to show off the power and possibilities of audio, but as he spoke to more people he realized there was a market for something bigger.
He teamed up with Jamin Smith, a former games journalist-turned-developer, and they set to work creating an expansive, invisible world. There are challenges to create a game with no graphics, they told me, such as not being able to rely on expository crutches like diary entries or cutaways to advance the story. But there's also a lot of possibility created when the world exists entirely in the player's imagination.
"We always say the brain is the best graphics card you could ever have" Willey told me. "You never have to upgrade it, and it's always photorealistic."
And when demonstrating the game at gamer conference over the past few years, they've gotten surprisingly positive reactions from sighted players.
"The main reaction we get is one of surprise that it's actually possible to play just using your ears," Willey said. "It's so easy to imagine in your head that you forget you don't have visuals. It's like when you're reading a great book."
They hope to have some Kickstarter backers beta test the game this summer in order to have a full release by the end of the year. In the meantime, Satizabal helps them work through the kinks and improve the gameplay.
"It's about people learning the power and the potential of sound and what they can achieve," he said.